Charlie Owns the Night by Ilse Cullen

Charlie Owns the Night (294 pp., $12.99, paper: $4.99, Kindle) is the debut novel by the Irish writer Ilse Cullen. Set in Vietnam in 1968, the books has a multi-arc story of several individuals whose lives are effected by the war. Love comes to odd couples in the midst of the Tet Offensive and its aftermath.

The novel interweaves several main characters. Each gets their own chapter. Chau is the daughter of a decorated North Vietnamese general. The general wants her to deliver a secret message to Viet Cong command in Saigon. She ends up in the tunnel complex at Cu Chi. 

On the way back home via the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Chau bonds with her driver, Trang. Her brother Chinh is a VC operative working in Saigon. He works in a bar where he picks up intelligence information from drunk Americans. He ends up in a forbidden relationship with Marie-Louise, a French journalist. 

Tom is an American doctor. He and his wife are involved in the antiwar movement, so you can imagine her reaction when he volunteers to serve in Vietnam because he thinks the experience of combat surgery will be valuable to his career.

Charlie Owns the Night is not a Vietnam War novel even though it is set in Vietnam during the war. This is a welcome change from the other Vietnam War novels I have read, though I would not recommend it as a reader’s first taste of the war. 

Cullen does throw in some tidbits that show she has knowledge of the war. The journalist, for example, takes in the “5 O’Clock Follies,” the derisive nickname war correspondents used for fabrication-laden military press briefings. She gives herself a gold star for specifying that the VC wore black-and-white checked neckerchiefs with a red band at each end. 

Cullen is more interested in generalizing the war. The communists will win because they want it more and the Americans are doomed to fail because most of them don’t care about what they are fighting for. She implies that nearly all American troops were on heroin. The American military she portrays is closer to the way it was in 1972 than 1968.

Of the three main stories, Chau’s is the most compelling. The delivery of the secret message is without suspense, but her long journey home on the Ho Chi Minh Trail gives the book a core that is intriguing.

Chinh’s arc starts slowly and then improves with the introduction of Marie-Louise. The romance seems rushed, but the novel takes off after she visits the American base at Tay Ninh and reports on the attitudes of American troops. 

Tom’s story is the most pedestrian. His wife caves in too easily and their relationship is mostly developed via letters that tend to be redundant.

Cullen can be trite (“Thank you for helping me love again”), but she is sincere in her effort to personalize the North Vietnamese side of the war. She manages to do that through Chau and Chinh and to be fair she adds Tom into the mix.

The novel is definitely pro-VC/NVA, but Cullen does not demonize Americans. Tom represents the benevolent side of America—a nation that poked its nose in business that was not its own.

If you are familiar with the American grunt experience in the Vietnam War through novels and nonfiction books, this novel will give you a different perspective. Apparently, they lived and loved, too.

–Kevin Hardy

There Was a Time by George H. Wittman

There Was A Time (Casemate, 312 pp. $24.95, paper; $11.49, Kindle) by George H. Wittman is a work of historical fiction dealing with the last few weeks of World War II in Southeast Asia. The hook is that we follow the exploits of a handful of Americans working closely with communist Vietnamese forces against invading Japanese troops. Wittman served in the U.S. Army during and after the Korean War.

The novel centers on a handpicked OSS team led by Maj. John Guthrie and his second in command, Capt. Edouard Parnell, both veterans of combat in the European theater. The team is parachuted into Tonkin, in far northern Vietnam, to lead the effort on the ground working directly with Ho Chi Minh’s rag-tag Viet Minh guerillas against the Japanese for control of what was then known as Indochina.

They’ve been told to get the Vietnamese to start “kicking some Jap ass.” One problem is understanding the complex Vietnamese political situation. Another big issue is dealing with the French who want to regain control of their Indochina colony, consisting of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Among the complicating factors is that the British were supporting the French because the Brits wanted to regain their own colonies, primarily India, after the war. Ho Chi Minh wanted the French and the Americans to be fighting the Japanese.

Guthrie, a labor lawyer in civilian life in Gary, Indiana, had been considered a “hard charger” after being awarded a Silver Star. He suffered from occasional nightmares, and even more frequent stomach ulcers.

Wittman

Both Ho Chi Minh and the head of the Viet Minh military forces, Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, end up meeting these Americans. Giap is depicted as dour man mainly because of his hatred for the French.

Ho is impressed by the American plan to give the Philippines independence after the war and believes the best chance for independence for Vietnam lies with cultivating a close relationship with the U.S. What he wants from Americans in the near-term are supplies, military equipment, and weapons.  

After a night-drop, the OSS team gets lost and is ambushed by a Japanese squad before encountering friendly Vietnamese who, as part of Ho’s Viet Minh guerrillas, have been helping rescue shot-down U.S. in pilots in northern Vietnam. The Viet Minh promise to help this small American group in return for receiving better weapons.

The title is a reference to this very short period of time in 1945 during which the U.S. and the communist nationalist leadership of Vietnam fought together as allies. During that time key decisions were made that would have a big impact on the Vietnamese and American people for generations to come.

George Wittman drops us into the middle of this chaotic time and place with a book that is nothing short of a riveting read.

The author’s website is georgehwittman.com

–Bill McCloud

Pop a Smoke by Rick Gehweiler

I believe that crewing on a helicopter—especially piloting one—was one of the most dangerous and difficult assignments in the Vietnam War. Fifty years after the fact, Rick Gehweiler has mined his memory and confirmed my belief with Pop a Smoke: Memoir of a Marine Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam (McFarland, 172 pp. $29.95, paper; $13.49, Kindle). He and I also agree that medics and corpsmen had it just as rough as helicopter crews.

Fresh out of the University of North Carolina and influenced by an uncle (a three-star Navy admiral), Gehweiler enlisted in the Marine Corps. After going through OCS and pilot training he arrived in Phu Bai in 1968 and joined the “Ugly Angels” helicopter squadron HMM-362. They flew the old Sikorsky H-34s, which would be taken out of service the next year.

Gehweiler tells his story as he best remembers it, frequently making the point that many events are deeply etched into his mind forever. He uses the second half of Pop a Smoke to spell out combat events filled with danger and tragedy he took part in. As a lieutenant, he entered the war with barely a clue as to why. Frisky as college fraternity boys, he and other young LTs matured into men of destiny.

“We just were along for the ride,” Gehweiler says, “with no control over what happened. We never discussed the validity of what was going on.” Following their missions, they headed off to the O Club “to see how much we could drink. It was the only way we knew to decompress and try to relax. “

Losing close friends and classmates in combat made him realize that he had to fly “at razor edge’s efficiency.” And he did.

Rick Gehweiler flew 150 missions, and describes about a dozen of them that are doozies. He dazzled me with stories about an overloaded Sikorsky bouncing to get airborne surrounded by NVA troops; extremely hazardous recon inserts and extractions; the time his helicopter was shot down and his copilot killed; night rocket attacks on Phu Bai; and medevac rescues. I only wish he had shared the details of more missions.

Gehweiler displays a few fits of righteous pique, but fundamentally he cares about the welfare of others. At heart, he is a selfless and humble guy who has repressed accounts of his exploits out of modesty, as I see it. He does include humorous accounts of lieutenants outwitting their superiors, noting that his “whole tour seemed like a full season of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone.”

Rick Gehweiler

Like other youthful troops, Rick Gehweiler came to realize how the post-traumatic stress disorder that still clouds his personality developed. As I interpret his work, he had difficulty in seeing the inevitable while swept up in combat and suffered the repercussions of combat trauma.

He ends the book by discussing his and others’ treatment for PTSD, “a disease,” he says, “we will always have.”

Gehweiler adds an epilogue that analyzes America’s decision to get involved in the war, its consequences, and its lessons. He emphasizes the pitfalls of poor decision making at high levels of government.   

Not surprisingly, he reflects the attitude of many Vietnam War veterans, myself included, when he says: “As bad as it could be some days, it was still the most challenging, exhilarating, and satisfying time in my life. As odd as it may sound, I still miss it, and would do it again in a heartbeat.”

—Henry Zeybel

Love Found and Lost by Kim Vui

Love Found and Lost: The Kim Vui Story (Texas Tech University Press, 260 pp. $26.95, hardcover; $8.99, Kindle), is an interesting and important autobiography by a Vietnamese actress and singer who was the most glamorous—and famous—star in the South Vietnamese entertainment industry in the 1960s and 1970s. This is also the story of Saigon’s nightlife and film scene during the American war years.

Kim Vui was six years old in 1945 when the Japanese surrendered to the United States near the end of World War II, which led to chaos in and around Saigon as the French tried to regain control of their former colonial capital. Amid the uproar, Kim Vui fled with her family to the Mekong Delta to begin a new life in the countryside. The next year she saw French forces murderously rampaging through her village. The family subsequently returned to Saigon.

With fond memories of singing in her Catholic church, Kim Vui began performing in theaters in Saigon at an early age. In spring of 1955, after France had lost all its Indochinese colonies, the sixteen-year-old Vui was pregnant by a young man she would only see once more in her life.

After her first child was born she finished secondary school and returned to singing in restaurants. Kim Vui also worked in a government program taking music, dance, and propaganda into the countryside to support the noncommunist South Vietnamese regime during the war against the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong.

South Vietnam was developing a small film industry and Kim Vui starred in her first movie in 1957. Ten years later, with Saigon now “a capital in the midst of war,” she had become a popular entertainer, known as a singer of “tragic love songs.” But having failed to find true love, Kim Viu writes, “I made myself ignore the past, live in the present, and always look to the future: to forget the illusion of love and think only of my children.”

In 1968 she took part in an Asian ensemble that had a few gigs in Las Vegas. Returning to Vietnam, she starred in two films with anti-communist themes. After marrying an American civilian, she moved to the U.S. with her children and parents. After that “marriage of necessity,” she wrote, “I would learn that one can survive, even in the absence of happiness.”

The actress and singer Kim Vui was known as “the Sophia Loren of Vietnam.”

She would eventually find herself taking one final stab at finding true love. Despite multiple marriages and occasional other relationships, Kim Vui was doing all that she thought she could to make a safe, successful, life for herself and her six children.

In Love Found and Lost, Kim Vui presents a rare and satisfying glimpse into the social life of upper-class Vietnamese citizens in South Vietnam during the war. Her strengths and maternal influences shine throughout this story—a story of a woman, herself, full of love.

–Bill McCloud

F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars by Joe Copalman

Joe Copalman is an expert on aviation history. F3D/EF-10 Skyknight Units of the Korean and Vietnam Wars (Osprey, 96 pp. $24, paper; $9.99, Kindle), his first work for Osprey, is a thorough rundown of an aircraft that was hitherto unfamiliar to me. Along with accounts of its role in two wars, Copalman includes views of the Skynight’s activities throughout the Cold War. Jim Laurier provides the book’s artwork, the usual first-class Osprey combination of drawings and photographs.

The Douglas F3D Skyknight was in action with the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps as a night fighter jet from 1950-70. A pilot and radar operator manned the plane. Copalman calls the aircraft “the most unsung hero of its two major wars.”

In Korea, twelve F3Ds Skyknights (nicknamed “Nightmares”) replaced the F4U-5N Corsair and F7F Tigercat in August 1952. Copalman describes missions of crews inexperienced in combat against both Korean and Chinese aircraft and high caliber antiaircraft fire. The pilots developed complicated maneuvers and struck ground targets of opportunity. Lacking formal training in tactics, they learned by doing.

With detailed accounts of air warfare, Copalman explains Nightmares’ difficulties tryin to avoid becoming bait for MiGs and searchlight traps, as well as the rigors of escorting outdated B-29s. The Nightmare pilots were pragmatic and understood that their jamming was effective when tracking AAA began firing erratically as their aircraft broke enemy radar locks. The Nightmares’ confrontations with slow-moving North Korean “Bedcheck Charlie” biplanes steal the Korean War show.

Two years after the Korean War, the F3D upgraded to the F3D-2Q, re-labeled the EF-10B in 1962. In the Cold War the plane performed photographic and electronic surveillance against Soviet-designed radar in North Vietnam, China, and the Soviet Far East. The EF-10Bs and MiGs looked each other over, but never fought.

The Vietnam War required a full-scale array of new tactics by EF-10B crews. They deployed as squadron VMCJ-1 to Da Nang in April 1965 and operated over South and North Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Copalman offers a full picture of the squadron’s actions during five years in-country. Renaming the aircraft “Whale” and “Super Whale,” crewmen again basically learned the best tactics for themselves through on-the-job training.

The men’s primary task was hunting and jamming North Vietnamese ground-controlled interception sites electronically or with chaff to outwit surface-to-air missile launch teams. In support of fighter-bombers, EF-10B crews were the first on target and last to leave. Overloaded with jammers and carrying maximum fuel, Whale pilots could barely get airborne and often shut down an engine to save fuel and lengthen their time over targets.

Whale and enemy SAM crews both developed new tactics. SAM crews tended to improve slightly faster because Soviet technical advisers helped them; at the same time, Pentagon rules restricted EF-10B attacks on SAM sites for fear of killing Russian advisers and escalating the war.

EF-10Bs escorted Navy A3Ds on straight-and-level, slow-speed bombing missions that one Skyknight pilot likened to World War B-17 raids on Germany. Every day offered a new experience.  

Copalman describes almost unimaginable highlights of the EF-10B’s flying from aircraft carriers. More than likely, he could write an entire book about the uniqueness of that potentially self-destructive practice.

I enjoyed F3D/EF-10. Like every Osprey book, its research uncovered new facts about warfare—in this case, the work of an aircraft unfamiliar to me. Heroics also are part of the drama.

Copalman portrays the resilience of American flyers by showing how they had to learn for themselves the best ways to execute their mission.

They relearned old lessons that hadn’t been passed down by people in similar dilemmas. Copalman clearly shows that the pilots came up with tactics that helped others more than themselves.

–Henry Zeybel

Vietnam War Refugees in Guam by Nghia M. Vo

When most of us hear the term “Boat People,” we think of South Vietnamese refugees escaping to the United States after the communist takeover in 1975. Nghia M. Vo’s Vietnam War Refugees in Guam: A History of Operation New Life, (McFarland, 203 pp., $35, paper; $16.49, Kindle), focuses on a what happened to more than 110,000 people who fled Vietnam and reached the island of Guam that year.

Vo is a researcher who specializes in Vietnamese history and Vietnamese-American culture. He has written several books and many articles on those subjects. His 2021 book, The ARVN and the Fight for South Vietnam, is interesting, intriguing, and very educational. His new book also contains a heavyweight history lesson.

Vietnam War Refugees in Vietnam, which deals mainly with Operation New Life, covers three general areas: The final days of the American war in Vietnam; the flight of tens of thousands of South Vietnamese to Guam and other staging areas; and the reception they had when landing in the U.S.A. and began trying to assimilate into American culture.

For the most part, the citizens of Guam accepted and welcomed the beleaguered Vietnamese refugees with open arms. The Guamanians volunteered their time, skills and excess goods (food, clothing, toys, and more) to these strangers from a foreign country.

Vo writes very clearly and definitively about individual North and South Vietnamese people and Americans, revealing their motivations, strengths, and weaknesses. The book teems with charts that offer a clear picture of the daunting tasks faced by American military personnel and aid workers—and by the refugees themselves.

Vo lists three types of general loss: casual (property, wealth), relationship (family, friends), and country (freedom and independence). With the communist takeover of their country in 1975, the South Vietnamese experienced all three of these losses.

I highly recommend Vietnam War Refugees in Guam.

–Bob Wartman

The Five O’clock Follies by Richard Brundage and David Billingsley

The Five O’clock Follies (Critical Communications, 306 pp. $19.99, hardcover; $11.99, paper; $4.99, Kindle) is a comic novel that looks at the Vietnam War through the experiences of three close friends. Co-author Richard Brundage served two tours in Vietnam; the first with D Troop of the 17th Cavalry, and the second conducting daily press briefings as an Operations Officer at the Da Nang Press Center. Co-author Billingsley is a novelist and meteorologist.

In a story that plays like a buddy movie (but with three guys), three GIs—Brunell, Donovan, and Hosa—bond while going through jungle warfare training together in the Panama Canal Zone in 1967. A year later, after having served apart in Vietnam, the three wind up at Fort Knox learning to command tank units. They love to clown around and there’s lots of wisecracking and shenanigans going on in the book. At the same time, the men know they would give their lives for each other.

The three receive separate assignments for their second tours in the war zone in 1969, but all end up in the far northern part of South Vietnam. Brunell, the main character, monkeys with his orders to get himself assigned to a cushier job with Armed Forces Vietnam Network, and takes over the press center at Phu Bai. He and his buddies continue to run into each other during the following year. Hosa is a pilot in Da Nang; Donovan’s work is so secret he can’t even say that he can’t talk about it.  

This humorous novel consists of many skit-like comic moments, some involving pranks. The buddies concoct fake orders. They have drag races with Army trucks down an airfield runway at night without lights.

Hosa takes part in the most dangerous missions. Donovan remains secretive. He’s the thinker in the group, the straight man, the voice of reason. Brunell settles in at the press center, and then gets reassigned to Da Nang. “Five O’clock Follies” is the term that war correspondents came to use for the military’s daily briefings, considering them basically to be foolish, untruthful, and repetitive.

This is an enjoyably humorous look at men at war with the enemy, as well as with their own military bureaucracy. But it’s mainly a double love story: a traditional love affair between a man and a woman, and the love three men have for each other as they share wartime experiences.

That kind of love is one of the few positives that can come from war. It is worth celebrating.

–Bill McCloud

Escape Route by Elan Barnehama

Elan Barnehama’s second novel, Escape Route (Running Wild Press, 242 pp., $19.99, paper; $9.49, Kindle), is an entertaining, fast-moving, well-written story about a small group of precocious teenagers in New York City in the late 1960s. The chapter-like story breaks have rock music titles such as “All Along the Watchtower,” “Piece of My Heart,” and “Summer in the City.”

The action swirls around Zach, who plays right field on his high school’s baseball team because that’s “where they played you if you couldn’t play.” His sister Ali is a student at Columbia University. Zach’s family is Jewish and his parents are Holocaust survivors. He accepts the traditions of Judaism, but questions a God who allowed the Holocaust to take place and his father to get polio. Zach believes that Jewish history is like “a series of apocalyptic novels that never seems to end.”

Zach is also concerned about the increasing violence reported in Vietnam and decides to use a notebook to begin recording the daily American casualty reports gleaned from the newspapers. He’s also aware that he doesn’t know anyone who served in the war.

Then he attends a party and hears a Marine tell a story that’s also related in Nicholas Proffit’s classic Vietnam War-heavy novel, Gardens of Stone. In it, someone jokes about the Viet Cong shooting arrows at American helicopters and someone else explains the difficulty of defeating an enemy willing to use arrows against helicopters.

It’s a time when the U.S. is experiencing political assassinations and increasing antiwar demonstrations. Zach begins engaging in philosophical conversations about the war and the Holocaust. He continues tracking war casualties, though his parents hope he’ll grow out of it.

A homeless Korean War veteran comes into Zach’s life, as well as a girl whose brother is a Vietnam War veteran. The nation learns of the My Lai massacre, Zach becomes infatuated with Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, and he gets excited about an upcoming Jimi Hendrix concert.

Zach then starts to believe that the government may very well start rounding up Jews. He joins AAA to have access to road maps, and sets out little-traveled routes into Canada with the idea that his family could escape north of the border and would be allowed in since the Canadians readily accepted American draft evaders.

While the book’s ending seemed to be abrupt, I’ll attribute that mainly that fact that I was not ready for this story to end.

Always leave your audience wanting more. That’s what Barnehama has done with this enjoyable, relatively short novel.

The author’s website is elanbarnehama.com

–Bill McCloud

U.S. Vehicles & Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War by David Doyle

Rich in photographs and information, David Doyle’s U.S. Vehicles and Heavy Weapons of the Vietnam War (Pen & Sword, 238 pp. $36.95, hardcover; $16.99, Kindle) covers virtually every American vehicle and towed weapon used in the Vietnam War—from the little half-ton M-274 Mule to the M-48 Medium Tank.    

For those who served in the Vietnam War era, looking at the photographs in this book is a nostalgic journey. Reading Doyle’s description of the instability of the M-151 MUTT (AKA, Jeep) brought back scary moments when I served in Vietnam and the Jeep I was reading in nearly flipped over. For post-Vietnam War veterans, the book just may be an eye opener to see how much military equipment such as the Humvee and M-1 Main Battle Tanks have changed.

Beyond the approximately two hundred photos of vehicles and weapons—from ambulances to cargo, firefighting trucks to self-propelled artillery, and much more—the book includes extensive charts and tables on each piece in which Doyle lists details on electrical systems, turning radii, dimensions, and more. There is probably not a single question about the equipment that this book does not answer.

Here and there interesting facts appear that may surprise many readers. I, for instance, had either forgotten or never knew that some military vehicles built by Continental Motors contained multi-fuel engines that could run on gasoline, diesel, or jet fuel.

This informative and interesting book is a great reference for anything that moved on wheels or tracks during the Vietnam War, including amphibious vehicles. For what might have been a dry subject, David Doyle, an accomplished military vehicle expert, has much to tell the reader about the Vietnam War—from the driver’s seat.

–John Cirafici

Once We Flew., Volume I by Joseph Michael Sepesy

Once We Flew Volume I: The Memoir of a U.S. Army Helicopter Pilot in Vietnam and a Life with PTSD, (Lulu.com, 674 pp. $49.95, hardcover; $39.95, paper; $10, Kindle), Joseph Sepesy’s memoir, is his sixth book. His first five were a series called Word Dances, that dealt with ballroom dancing. His next book will be titled Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

Once We Flew is a different kind of memoir. The book’s main body is broken into six main parts. Combined, they contain 160 very short, chronologically ordered, sections. Each section tells a complete story. Many are riveting, bone-chilling tales of Vietnam War combat flying.

This is a long book—and I wish it were longer. While I had to put it down from time to time, I did so only reluctantly. It is a fascinating read.

From an early age, Joe Sepesy, a member of Vietnam Veterans of America, wanted to fly helicopters. The U.S. Army presented him the opportunity to fulfill that desire. He was not a natural, though, and had to work long and hard to conquer the basics of flying. After a while, he learned to fly and became a master at combat flying.

During his first year in the Vietnam War with the First Cav’s 227th Assault Helicopter Battalion and the 1st Aviation Brigade and during two subsequent, voluntary six-month tours of duty, Sepesy accumulated a staggering total of 2,200 combat flight hours. While he displayed great amounts of skill and selfless courage, Sepesy never considered himself a combat hero—simply a man doing his job.

Being a very visible, high-value target and being shot at nearly every day, Sepesy did not dwell on death while in Vietnam, but was well aware of its nearness. Always keeping in mind, that, as he puts it, “complacency kills,” he became very methodical in addressing the dangers of flying in the warzone.

A man with Sepesy’s experiences is a prime candidate for developing post-traumatic disorder, and he writes a lot about it in this book. I found that to be a distraction. If PTSD is what you want to read about, I recommend Once We Flew Volume II: Aftermath.

I experienced a lot of suspenseful moments while reading Volume I. I liked Joe Sepesy’s honesty, his grit, and his writing style. After completing the book, I doubled back and reread much of the front matter.

I highly recommend Once We Flew: Volume I, which tells the life and times of a heroic American combat aviator.

Sepesey’s website is booksbyjmsepesy.com

–Bob Wartman